Amid More Skepticism Than Hope, Israeli-palestinian Cease-fire Declared

Three Palestinian terror groups have agreed to a cease-fire on attacks against Israel.

But whether the moratorium on violence will hold for long is anybody’s guess.

The cease-fire announced Sunday by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah was accompanied by a redeployment of Israeli troops from parts of the Gaza Strip under a deal to transfer security responsibility to the Palestinians.

The steps were the fruit of heavy American pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians to stop violence and resuscitate the political process through the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan.

But despite the steps forward, there was plenty of caution and skepticism among all parties involved.

U.S. officials stressed that much work remains to be done; some Israeli ministers called the cease-fire a ruse by Palestinian terrorist organizations to regroup; and some Palestinians warned Israel against steps that would end the truce.

The official declaration by Hamas and Islamic Jihad of a three-month moratorium on attacks against Israel followed speculation that the military, political and financial pressure on the groups was growing too hard to bear.

On Sunday, senior Hamas official Abdel Aziz Rantissi, who was the target of a failed Israeli assassination attempt earlier this month, said Hamas and Islamic Jihad had decided to suspend military operations “against the Zionist enemy for three months,” starting Sunday.

Islamic Jihad leader Mohammed Al-Hindi confirmed the joint declaration by the groups, The Associated Press reported.

Later Sunday, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction joined the cease-fire, declaring a six-month suspension in attacks against Israel.

A Fatah Central Committee member told Israeli television’s Channel One that the group’s announcement to join the truce had been held up by internal discussions over the wording of the declaration.

Jailed West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is currently on trial in Israel for involvement in terrorist attacks in which dozens of Israelis were killed, was reportedly involved in the contacts leading up to the truce declarations.

The cease-fire declaration by Hamas and Islamic Jihad was qualified — among the demands raised was that Israel halt “targeted killings” of suspected Palestinian terrorists and release Palestinian prisoners.

Israeli opinion on the cease-fire was divided.

Some say Israel should welcome any offer by the Palestinians to cease terrorist attacks and stop the violence. Others maintain that a truce would only allow terrorist organizations to regroup, while letting the Palestinian Authority off the hook from its need to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure.

Among the critics was Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who called the cease-fire declaration a “ticking bomb” in the long term.

“The main issue is to dismantle the infrastructures of terror,” he said on Channel One.

The United States called the truce a step in the right direction. But a White House spokesperson stressed that the road map called on the parties to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure.

As the Palestinian cease-fire was issued, Israeli troops began redeploying from Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, the first part of a deal to transfer security responsibility to the Palestinians.

Worked out by senior Israeli and Palestinian security officials, the plan calls for Israel to dismantle military checkpoints and cease incursions into the Palestinian areas in exchange for Palestinians assuming security responsibility and acting to prevent terrorist movement and rocket attacks from the area.

At a meeting Sunday, the parties also worked out details for travel arrangements on the main north-south Gaza Strip highway. These included permitting Palestinian traffic through the Netzarim and Gush Katif junctions. Palestinian traffic would be stopped when Israeli convoys passed through, the daily Ha’aretz reported.

No agreement was reached yet on the transfer of security responsibility to the Palestinians in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Further discussions on the matter are expected to take place in the coming days.

The latest developments topped off a visit to the region by Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, the latest of a string of senior administration officials dispatched to the region.

Rice met Sunday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who briefed her on the plan to transfer security responsibility to the Palestinians. She also met with the Israeli foreign and defense ministers.

On Saturday, Rice met with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who was formally invited to the White House. Abbas reportedly did not accept immediately. He has previously said he will not visit the United States until Israel’s siege on Arafat is lifted.

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